Every country in the world is competing to buy N95 face masks to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
And scammers are trying to cash in.
Escrow.com General Manager Jackson Elsegood broke down how much money may have been spent on what is essentially a face mask black market.
While some of these transaction attempts are outright scams where no supplied are delivered, others involve fraudsters knowingly hawking incorrect mask types and stolen medical supplies from legitimate NGOs.
What is escrow? It’s a process in which two parties pay a third service to oversee a transaction. When the buyer gets the goods, the escrow service releases the money to the seller.
Escrow.com normally handles the sale of domain names, as well as motor vehicles and bulk electronics. In fact, it provided its services for the sales of high-profile domain names such as instagram.com, twitter.com, uber.com, and gmail.com.
The service has a reputation for being highly secure, which normally discourages scammers.
“We are seeing a huge surge in transactions for personal protective equipment (PPE), along with a rapidly growing list of suppliers from all over the world,” Elsegood explained in an email. “Extremely high demand and a large number of new, low-reputation suppliers is a perfect situation for scammers to prey on unprepared buyers.”
We’ve already reported on a number of coronavirus schemes on the internet. Fake COVID-19 testing kits and other hokum remedies on fly-by-night websites. Hackers have also people via phishing websites and scams on social media.
World leaders are sparring over them. The U.S. government has been accused by politicians in countries including France and Germany of swooping in and paying a premium to divert shipments of N95 face masks.
Escrow.com recently conducted an and uncovered numerous fake websites without any prior online history offering bulk orders of N95 masks at suspiciously low prices. The company took notice after spotting a number of incomplete transactions in which funds weren’t being released to the seller.
“Scams ranged from passing off lower rated masks as N95 rated, selling non-existent stock, and even selling stock that appears to be stolen from the supply chain of other organizations like the Red Cross,” said Elsegood.
One case detailed by Escrow.com involved “3mspain.org,” a now-defunct website claiming to represent the Madrid offices of the global conglomerate 3M, which makes N95 face masks. However, the domain was only registered in February and 3M already has a website, “3m.com.es,” for its Madrid operation using a Spanish country code domain extension .es.
Escrow.com obtained emails between a representative of the site going by the name of Dr. Heredia Jose and a potential buyer. The email was offering one million N95 face masks for $827,262.
In subsequent emails, the site representative refused to allow the potential buyer to inspect the masks prior to purchase and switched from posing as the manufacturer to claiming to be an official reseller. They did, however, send a of a bulk supply of boxed face masks in an attempt to sway the buyer.
Shortly after, and before a transaction could be made, the “3mspain.org” website disappeared from the internet.
Another suspected fraudulent business uncovered by the investigation claimed to be a worldwide leader in manufacturing N95 face masks. Escrow.com found the operation only claimed around $160,000 in revenue last year. That’s far less than what Escrow.com would expect from an industry leader selling its products around the globe.
Escrow.com reported that the number of transaction setups on the site for masks and medical protective equipment increased more than 5,000 percent since January.
Elsegood tells Mashable that the company usually sees $2-4 million per week in transactions, with an $11-12 million peak around times where businesses commonly reorder stock, such as the start of the calendar year.
“Approximately 3 percent of these have a dispute or return,” explained Elsegood. Those usually involve deliveries being short or not coming at all.
However, the company has seen transactions explode during the pandemic, particularly in its medical and industrial equipment category. And, with that rise comes a boom in scams. Escrow.com transactions have exceeded $300 million in the last two weeks with a whopping $100 million of that volume being flagged by Elsegood’s team.
“We typically see a buyer initiate the transaction to protect themselves and in many cases the scammer seeing that they won’t get paid until they deliver is enough of a ‘natural antibiotic’ to fraud,” Elsegood told. “Transactions set up by sellers on the other hand are typically because they are legitimate vendors and looking to distinguish themselves from the pack.”
Furthermore, Elsegood explained to Mashable that more than 99 percent of its transactions are business or organizational bulk-sized purchases, meaning there’s a lot of money at stake. And because the buyer often sets these transactions up with the full intent to purchase from a good-faith seller, we can get a sense of how much real money was up for grabs.
Escrow.com explained to Mashable that while the supply of face masks appears to be coming out of China, the actors selling the product are all over the world.
“Our team has identified agents in the USA, Australia, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Netherlands so far,” Elsegood told us.
President Donald Trump recently with 3M to supply the U.S. with hundreds of millions of face masks over the next few months. While that’s certainly a good thing, its makes clear that the face mask shortage is nowhere near to being solved.
And that means the face mask black market will continue to go on.